Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 17 (In the Year 2000....)

As the new millennium dawned I could feel a changeover in the WWF product almost immediately. Right away there was a renewed sense of urgency to the show and it no longer felt like a bloated, frantic mess.

The first RAW episode of 2000 featured a WWF Title change, as Triple H won back the belt he had lost to The Big Show.  With no real direction for Paul Wight as Champion, it was clear Hunter should be the top dog for the time being.  Even better was that his first feud of the year would be against the man who had helped make The Rock such a successful heel Champ, Mick Foley.  But it wouldn't be the cuddly, lovable Mankind, who had morphed into something of a comedy act in 1999.  Instead the sadistic, violent Cactus Jack made his return to WWF TV and challenged Triple H to a Street Fight at the Royal Rumble.  At this time Hunter was still an unproven top heel and hadn't established himself as a legit tough guy, so the idea of him facing Cactus in a No DQ match was pretty crazy.

The Rumble event itself was incredible, and set the tone for the entire year.  From start to finish there was a fresh, exciting vibe to it all.  Taz(z) migrated over from ECW and made short work of recent newcomer Kurt Angle, The Hardy Boyz and Dudley Boyz beat the living crap out of each other in a blazing Tables match, Chris Jericho reasserted himself as the Intercontinental Champion after having to share that belt with Chyna (don't ask), The Rock inevitably but entertainingly won the Royal Rumble which was full of lively characters that kept the match moving.  But that Street Fight.....  Triple H and Cactus Jack punished each other for a full 25 minutes before Hunter retained with a Pedigree through a pile of thumbtacks.  This match was as much responsible for Triple H building a reputation as a durable top-flight heel as any other factor.  Hunter took all of Foley's stiff, hardcore-style offense and never seemed out of his element.  I've had my issues with Hunter over the years, but there's no denying that in the year 2000 he earned his stripes and became a WWF cornerstone.  This was the beginning of a career year for the future COO.

I just got brain matter all over my television screen.

In WCW, things were flying apart like crazy.  Vince Russo predictably wasn't able to turn the company around like he claimed to have done for the WWF.  The biggest difference of course was that in Stamford he was kept on a creative leash and his ideas went through a filter before reaching TV.  But in WCW there was no one to rein him in, and so the product devolved even further into a morass of nonsensical booking.  Russo soon found himself out on his ass, and Kevin Sullivan got the book.  Unfortunately that meant the remaining company workhorses like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero could not be coaxed into staying with WCW (even after making Benoit the Champion), and they asked for their releases in January of 2000.  Imagine my shock and elation when I tuned into RAW on January 31st to see Benoit, Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn sitting at ringside.  Could it be??  Did the WWF just absorb WCW's best guys?

The answer of course, was yes!  Dubbed The Radicalz, the four WCW castoffs attacked DX at the end of RAW and were now full-fledged WWF stars.  This was an amazing coup, as it gave the WWF stalwarts a whole new group of serious, well-known in-ring talent to work with.  Between these new faces, Angle, Jericho, and the burgeoning tag team division, the roster had the best foundation in years.  Benoit and co. unfortunately weren't given the strongest in-ring introduction, as they were all beaten by DX members in their respective debuts, but they quickly turned heel and became part of Triple H's army.  The following few months saw all four Radicalz used prominently, filling out the card and contributing to some of the best overall PPV events in the company's history (not to mention helping make RAW and Smackdown absolutely spectacular on an almost weekly basis).  Seriously, the "B-show" PPVs in 2000 were amazing for the most part, starting with No Way Out.

The annual February show was headlined by a Triple H-Cactus rematch, this time in Hell in a Cell.  The two delivered probably the best HIAC match since the original, nearly equaling the brutality of the Taker-Mankind match but in much safer fashion.  One of the stipulations was that Cactus Jack had to retire if he lost, which was of course the result.  After over a decade of absorbing tremendous abuse in the ring, Mick Foley decided it was time to hang it up, and wanted to go out on a high note.  This was one of the best matches of the year.  No Way Out also featured a stupendous undercard consisting of Chris Jericho vs. Kurt Angle, Edge & Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz, Kane vs. X-Pac, and The Radicalz (minus an injured Eddie Guerrero) vs. Rikishi and Too Cool.  The semi-main event went to The Rock vs. The Big Show to determine the #1 Contender for WrestleMania 2000.  Show won but it was obvious The Rock would be inserted into the 'Mania main event anyway.

I always wondered how they set up the "broken mat" gimmick.

As it turned out each McMahon would sponsor a participant in the WM2000 Title match.  Vince McMahon returned to TV after being destroyed by Triple H a few months earlier, to announce The Rock would be in the match.  Linda McMahon then showed up and reintroduced Mick Foley, sans any of his signature characters, as a one-night-only competitor.  So yeah, Foley's retirement would last exactly five weeks, but at least he'd finally get his big WrestleMania moment.  I wasn't exactly jazzed about the McMahons having such a conspicious role in the match, but I was intrigued by the 4-way aspect; a first for WrestleMania.

The buildup to 'Mania included a monumental mainstream TV event, as The Rock hosted Saturday Night Live.  Seeing the top WWF stars on SNL was amazing to me and harkened back to the mid 80s when Hulk Hogan and Mr. T appeared on the show.  But unlike those two, The Rock was able to play a range of different characters and displayed a real aptitude for comedy (which wasn't really surprising given how funny he had been on WWF TV).

As for WrestleMania 2000 itself, the show was something of an odd mess.  The roster was so stacked the company tried to cram too many wrestlers on the card, and the result was an unfocused show without even a single traditional one-on-one match.  It was almost like they knew the B-shows were going to be so much improved from previous years, so they felt the need to make the Big Four that much bigger.  But other than the Rumble, the Big Four in 2000 were PPV lowlights.

Still WM2000 had some standouts, such as the "EuroContinental" Triple Threat between Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho, and a fun six-person tag between the other three Radicalz and Too Cool & Chyna.  But the showstopper was the first-ever Triangle Ladder Match.  The Dudley Boyz defended their Tag Titles against Edge & Christian and The Hardy Boyz in one of the most insane spotfests of all time.  This match took what Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon had done six years earlier and turned it up about twelve notches.  To say many of the spots here were death-defying would be an understatement.  Just an incredible stunt match that made all three teams major WWF attractions.  The Four-Way main event was a pretty good match that obviously boiled down to The Rock vs. Triple H.  I went into this thinking it a foregone conclusion that Hunter would drop the belt, as it was clearly The Rock's time to be The Man.  But shockingly Hunter retained thanks to a turncoat Vince McMahon, making him the first heel to leave a WrestleMania as the WWF Champion.

The stage was set for a lengthy Rock-Triple H feud, and the following month's Backlash featured a one-on-one rematch, with Steve Austin set to make his first TV appearance since surgery, as a ringside enforcer.  But Backlash would be much more than a one-match show; the 2000 edition was one of the best PPVs I've ever seen.  All the top new talent was spotlighted heavily on this show, with Edge & Christian defending the Tag belts against X-Pac & Road Dogg, Dean Malenko vs. Scotty 2 Hotty for the Light Heavyweight belt, Kurt Angle unfortunately getting squashed by Big Show, Eddie Guerrero facing Essa Rios for the European Title, and in a fantastic semi-main event, Chris Benoit vs. Chris Jericho for the I-C Title.  These two had worked together for years, and in 2000 they delivered a feud on par with Savage vs. Steamboat in the 80s.  The Rock would recapture the World Title from Triple H to close out an absolutely stacked PPV, and the souped-up WWF machine just kept rolling to the next major event.

Back in Atlanta, WCW officials were throwing out every idea they could think of, to try and stop the bleeding.  Now both Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo were running the show, and they actually rebooted everything, stripping all the champions of their respective titles and announcing tournaments to crown new champs.  They also pitted the established, aging stars of the past against the young roster members in an attempt to galvanize the product.  Unfortunately when you position the old-timers as babyfaces it only justifies their holding down the younger guys in the eyes of the audience.  It also doesn't help when you put your top belt on a C-list movie star just to sell movie tickets.  That's right, WCW made David Arquette the WCW Champion for two weeks to try and get fans to see their new movie Ready to Rumble.  Unbelievable.  Did I mention how vindicated I felt to have been a WWF loyalist through the Monday Night War?

Yeah, good move, jerks.

The Rock-Triple H saga continued at Judgment Day, where the two met in an Iron Man match, the first since Bret vs. Shawn four years earlier.  The match was very different from its predecessor; instead of a methodical mat-based contest it was a wild brawl with a total of 11 falls.  The finish was significant due to the surprise return of The Undertaker, who had vanished in late '99 after walking off RAW (in reality due to a groin injury, g-g-groin injury).  Sporting a new biker persona, Taker attacked DX just before time expired, and inadvertently cost The Rock the WWF Title.  Also on the card were an excellent Benoit-Jericho rematch with submission rules, Rikishi and Too Cool vs. Kurt Angle and Edge & Christian, and Eddie Guerrero vs. Perry Saturn.  A streamlined six-match card, Judgment Day continued the trend of good-to-excellent B PPVs.

The stage was set for a huge King of the Ring tournament - the biggest ever at 32 participants.  Just two years earlier the idea of a WWF roster big enough for a 32-man tourney was unfathomable, but in 2000 the field was so stacked it was easy.  I was tremendously excited for the KOTR PPV as it was held in Boston.  I tried to get tickets but it sold out quickly and I was stuck watching at home.  Unfortunately the KOTR PPV was the first big miss of the WWF's 2000 calendar.  The first two rounds of the tourney took place on free TV as expected, and the field was narrowed down to eight: Chris Benoit, Rikishi, Eddie Guerrero, Val Venis, Crash Holly, Bull Buchanan, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle.  I'm not sure what Holly or Buchanan were doing in the Elite 8, and Venis hadn't been relevant in quite some time, but I was still expecting a good bracket.  Instead I got mostly very abbreviated matches thanks to an overloaded card (seriously, 11 matches is way too many for a 3-hour show), where my three top picks (Benoit, Guerrero and Jericho) were eliminated in the first round.  Ultimately the tourney came down to Kurt Angle, whom I hadn't quite embraced yet, defeating Rikishi, whom I enjoyed as a comedy character but not as a top star.  The main event was a six-man tag with the WWF Title on the line.  Huh??  Yup, The Rock teamed with Taker and Kane against Triple H, Vince and Shane, and whoever scored the pinfall would walk out with the belt.  The Rock proceeded to defeat Vince to win back the Championship, in one of the lamest Title changes in recent memory.  So yeah, KOTR was a rare swing-and-a-miss for the 2000 incarnation of the WWF, the only highlight being a four-way Tag Title match.

Still the summer was shaping up to be pretty damn good, with Benoit, Jericho and Angle all being groomed for main event feuds with the established WWF guys.  The July PPV would end up being the best of the year, and one of my all-time favorite events....

Part 16                                                                                                                                            Part 18

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